27 June 2017

The ABC stuck with its controversial plan to axe short-wave radio services relied upon by some people in the bush, but has unveiled a last-minute package of enhanced support measures for affected listeners amid mounting criticism of its treatment of rural audiences.

Bill Shorten wrote to the Prime Minister on Australia Day, calling on the Turnbull government to intervene on behalf of cattlemen, emergency service workers, rangers and others in the Northern Territory, where the countrys last three short-wave transmitters are located.

It comes after pastoralists warned that the ABCs plan to switch off all three on January 31 effectively bringing to an end almost a century of ABC short-wave transmissions risked fomenting a Trump-style populist revolt by preventing rural residents from participating in public debates that are crucial to democracy.
The broadcaster, which is accelerating its shift to digital platforms under the leadership of managing director Michelle Guthrie, has not publicly admitted to reconsidering its stance.

In a statement yesterday rebutting opposition claims that the ABCs decision was somehow linked to government funding cuts, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said the ABCs decision, announced unexpectedly in December, had since been confirmed.

While the ABC has confirmed its decision I think the public broadcaster has learnt some valuable lessons about community consultation and engagement in regional and remote areas, Mr Fifield said. This is entirely a call by the ABC who have the legislated operational independence to make these decisions.

Mr Shorten told The Australian the ABCs rural listeners had been shabbily treated.

The people of the Northern Territory have been treated shabbily throughout this process. The Prime Minister needs to start listening to locals and speaking up for them, he said.

NT Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said she was pleased her boss was now championing the territorys ABC short-wave service. He understands the importance of the ABC short-wave service to Territorians who live and work in remote areas, Senator McCarthy said.

In the final days before this vital service is cut off the ABC and the Turnbull government must listen to Territorians and others who want to save our short-wave.
Mr Turnbulls office did not respond to questions.

In a statement issued yesterday, the ABC said it was deeply committed to rural and regional Australia and the one-third of Australians who live outside the capital cities.
The ABC acknowledges a small audience living and working in the Northern Territory favour short-wave radio when accessing ABC services, the statement said.
It promised to expand an existing information awareness program with the addition of easier access to information packs about alternative services, one-on-one telephone support and how-to videos to guide listeners to catch up on programs using podcasts.

The National Broadband Network satellite services Sky Muster will also assist those in remote Australia, by providing access to all ABC online and digital content, the statement said.

The ABC will also supply (donate) a VAST satellite system unit to all Royal Flying Doctor Service bases and 4WD Radio club bases in the affected region, allowing them to rebroadcast emergency or warning messages as required.

Those things are unlikely to placate pastoralists, who usually live and work far from 4WD clubs and cannot realistically mount large VAST (viewer access satellite television) systems on their vehicles. Cattle station owners and staff continue to complain bitterly about the poor quality of NBN satellite services, where one connection typically offering less than 100GB of downloads per month may be shared among a dozen or more people for both personal and business purposes. In practice, they say, this makes all ABC digital content inaccessible in the bush.

In his letter, Mr Shorten wrote: the ABCs claim that the majority of listeners will be able to access ABC services via AM/FM radio, digital radio and online streaming, or via VAST platform does not account for the reality of service availability in remote areas.

This helps to explain why listeners and users of the ABC short-wave in the Northern Territory have been unequivocal in voicing their concern at the Coalitions failure to intervene in this matter, Mr Shorten continued.

I am also deeply concerned that the ABC took this decision without satisfactory consultation with affected listeners, community representatives and emergency service workers and agencies. He said Ms Guthrie had acknowledged shortfalls in this regard.

Mr Shorten said in his letter that short-wave radio provided a vital news and information services, including local radio and emergency messages that are crucial to those living in remote areas, particularly in time of natural disaster. For these reasons I ask that you work with Labor, ABC management and local stakeholders as a matter of urgency to ensure the continued provision of short-wave radio service in the NT beyond 31 January 2017, he wrote.

The ABCs statement said the VAST satellite service was used across other large parts of the remote Australian outback where there are no short-wave broadcasts such as in parts of the NT, all of WA, SA, QLD, and NSW.

The statement said many remote workers and travellers use VAST to access all ABC Radio and TV in digital quality.

The Australian, 30 January 2017